The Origins of Morality really do Matter

March 23, 2010

Why do humans use such complex systems of moral rules and stern enforcements? We don't find that high degree of complexity, communication, and energy put into morality by any other species. 

Religions offer an origin story to explain our 'specialness'. A divine power was involved in our creation, caring enough for humans to give us the ability to know morality and serve the divine. Some religions add that this god sends messages about moral rules and delivers punishments. 

Most people around the world accept some religious story about morality. The conduct of religious people directly reflects this unthinking acceptance, and the evolution of their cultures has been deeply affected in turn. Today we see many cultures struggling with conservative religious legacies, unable to effectively deal with their modern problems, and unable to deal with neighboring cultures.

If religion is entirely wrong about why humans use complex moralities, then that changes everything. The origins of morality really do matter. If religion is not correct, then we desperately need to learn the truth.

The natural and social sciences have new accounts of human morality: why our species uses complex moralities to sustain communities (a largely biological/anthropological matter), and how moralities descend with modifications through generations (a largely sociological/political matter). These two issues are obviously linked: our anthropological 'natures' provide constraints on the diversity of cultural moralities, while our cultural 'ethics' selectively emphasize some of our anthropological needs. Nature and ethics are intimately linked in this general scientific account: our 'nature' and our 'ethics' are not independently aloof matters. Cultures and their ethics are natural because they are human, and they are naturalistically explainable. Ethics can't stray far from anthropology for very long, but ethics can make a big difference. Our cultures have invented different ways of organizing societies, but all societies more or less figure out some way to sustain food production, promote family reproduction, develop technologies, distribute political authority, etc. One's cultural ethics explains and justifies the local way of doing such important things. 

We have already mentioned how religious ethics may be seriously in error. Since it is, by now, our human nature to be cultural, the origins of morality really do matter once again. No god is responsible for our cultures, so we have been on our own all along. If morality is natural for us, we don't need any god, but we do have to intelligently manage our own moralities in this planetary age. The local is being replaced by the global. Most cultures can't afford anymore to rest content with traditional answers. Our ethical thinking must expand to take account of this novel planetary situation. Humanism is one prominent example of fresh ethical thinking that takes both our history and our present into account.

But humanism is crippled from the start if the origins of morality really don't matter. Over at The Guardian, commentators are discussing "What can Darwin teach us about morality?"   Imagine my surprise at reading Razib Khan’s response, "The Origins of morality do not matter." He says,

The origins of morality do not matter. The Danes believe in evolution, yes, but they understand it only marginally better than the Turks. Fewer still could define inclusive fitness. Turks believe in Islam, but most know Islamic theology or jurisprudence as well as a Dane. Sons cherish their mothers, and mothers will sacrifice for their children, whether they believe in a living God above, an eternal karmic cycle, or a mindless evolutionary process across the eons.

Actually, the natural origins of morality must matter, if Khan is right about such basic and universal moral intuitions. Khan goes on to describe cultural evolution, constrained by natural selection, and this too is an origin account. I have written about Marc Hauser's research showing that even religions can't easily override basic moral intuitions shared around the world. Hauser's explanation is an origin theory: basic morals are nearly universal because they are very old and embedded in the species, older and deeper than any religions of historical record. 

Two fallacies must be avoided at this stage. It is fallacious to think, "Anything humanly natural must be necessary for us." It is also fallacious to think, "No culture should try to adjust our deep moral intuitions." The social sciences expose both fallacies by taking the origins and functions of our moralities into account. 

Religious ethics should not be replaced by a Darwinian ethics, as if we should just replace a divine master with a genetic master. Morality is Darwinian; cultural ethics need not be, in the shorter term. Indeed, the point of thoughtful culture is to manage moral intuitions, enhancing some and de-emphasizing others. Few moral intuitions can be entirely overridden (biological evolution/cultural failure tends to weed out severe deviations), as Hauser suggests, but cultures design and teach ethical systems to dramatically promote things like trust, cooperation, and compassion (to a point -- many cultures retain a local bias). Furthermore, many cultures use ethical thinking to make fast generational adjustments to moralities to deal with changed cultural conditions (new technologies, shifting divisions of labor, urban populations, genocides and empire wars, etc.). Robert Wright's intriguing book "The Evolution of God" traces religious ethics around the world and highlights how civilizations have developed some common ethics, over and above basic morality. Again, since human intelligence is quite natural, no real god must be inserted to account for humans managing their moralities when faced with similar problems, and humans sometimes doing ethics in similar ways as a result. (Even the way that humans invent gods to help adjust moralities can be naturalistically explained.) Humanism, again, is a thoughtful ethics that relies on this natural perspective on our capacities for managing moralities. 

Yes, humans have natural capacities for morality, and that is why cultures can selectively emphasize moral intuitions to a higher degree through the training of youth and enforcement on adults. Morality and culture are real, and powerful. This is why Michael Ruse's otherwise sound commentary "God is Dead. Long live Morality" should not apply a false dichotomy for morality as either 'objective' or 'subjective' so that Ruse could prefer 'subjective'. We are used to getting that simplistic dichotomy thrown at nonbelievers by religion’s defenders so that religion can claim to be 'objective'. However, if naturalism is better than religion, then morality is far more objective: morality really is based in our genes and in our ethical cultures (both natural entities) and not merely in some subjective inner realm. Since religion is in error about the origin and function of morality, it is religion which is quite subjective. Religious ethics can try, as Wright discusses, to revise traditional moralities to reach for better objectivity. However, religious ethics is slowed by relying on some god that tempts absolute certainty. Humanism sheds that dependence to reach a higher potential for (revisable) objectivity. We learn as we go, but like science, we do learn if we try intelligence. Ruse locates morality in subjective emotion while Khan dismisses philosophy entirely, but I prefer adding some philosophical ethics to moral intuition or religious ethics.

Humanists must carefully consider naturalism's offer of assistance with understanding morality and ethics. Too often religious people accuse the nonreligious of having only 'subjective' morality, leaving religion as the only sound alternative. But I think that naturalism can do better than to confirm that hasty verdict upon us humanists. The biological/social sciences offer a more complicated theory, and this theory can additionally help humanism. If morality were so personally subjective or merely culturally relative, no one could never have any justification (besides cultural prejudice) for criticizing other cultures, such as fundamentalist regimes. Nor could humanism supply ethical guidance on a planetary scale for the emerging global community. Yet humanism is a justifiable "wisdom tradition" worthy to stand among older alternatives, and humanism can be even better by allying with naturalism. 

Once again, the origins of morality really do matter to sound ethical judgment. As Sam Harris has recently explained in "Science can answer moral questions" (his video concludes this essay), a natural perspective on morality can help us evaluate some conditions for human wellbeing. Ethics can attain a level of respectable objectivity by taking into account the origin and proper functioning of morality. Humanism, I believe, offers the best opportunity for this important effort.